Guitar Pickups – A Comprehensive Guide

Is there an easy way to quickly become more familiar with guitar pickups? Yes, there is. Especially if presented in an easy to read format, without all the difficult and unnecessary jargon.

I for one didn’t get into pickups at all until a few years ago. I always kept the stock pickups on for the guitars I bought, and felt pretty happy and content with that. As I learned more about them my guitar universe expanded significantly, and I have now modified many of my guitars, much to my satisfaction.

That’s why we thought it would be a great idea to create a comprehensive guide for you guys. We tried to compile all we know, and I also did a lot of research during this past week to come up with something easy to understand.

How do guitar pickups work?

A guitar pickup consists of magnets wrapped in coils of copper wire. This creates a magnetic field that senses the vibrations of the string. You could say it’s like having a microphone right next to the strings. Those vibrations are then converted into an electric signal that travels through your cable, and whatever gear you’re using, into your amp. And voila, there is sound!

Humbuckers vs Single Coils

The two main types of pickups are humbuckers and single coils, and there are many distinct differences between the two. In the early days all guitar pickups were single coils, and then in the mid 1950’s Gibson introduced the PAF pickup (Patent Applied For). It had two single coils next to each other, which later became known as humbuckers (bucking the hum) due to their noise-cancelling abilities. Let’s take a look at each one of them in a little more detail.

Single Coils

Single coil pickups are quite bright and crisp sounding, with great definition, and work really well with clean sounds. However, there is a bit of a drawback. As soon as they’re pushed a little into overdrive you start to hear a buzz. This is part of the “single coil experience”.

Although excellent tonal qualities, they are also a bit unforgiving. They tend to amplify exactly what you play, your slides, bends and all the moving around the fretboard. The way they are built makes them prone to pick up everything around them, like antennas. So sloppy playing styles tend to get punished.

They are very popular in blues, rock and funk, and in terms of sound think Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, David Gilmour, John Mayer etc

Humbuckers

Hardly surprising, the humbucker is pretty much the opposite from a single coil. As already mentioned, humbuckers use two coils together, wired with opposite polarities, to cancel out any noise. They have a warmer, fuller and thicker sound, and since they don’t attract a lot of other noises they are a lot more forgiving to play.

The two coils mean extended power and output, which allows for more range and control for volume and tone. This actually makes them ideal for distortion, as you can push the amp to its limits and still have great sound control. Unfortunately they lack the clarity of the single coil, and it’s also hard to get that “vintage sound”. Also, humbuckers have less note definition between strings.

Needless to say, humbuckers are great for heavier music like hard rock and metal. But their softer, smoother clean tones have also made them popular in the jazz genre.

Now, before moving on I’d just like to say that almost any sound can be achieved with almost any pickup with a little help from all sorts of cool gadgets and amps. So don’t think for a second that dark, heavy tones can’t be achieved with a Fender Telecaster.

What is a P90 pickup?

Well, these are actually single coil pickups, but they are larger than the more classical Strat-style pickups. They sound a bit warmer and thicker than your normal single coils, but suffer from the same noise problems as their siblings.

What is a split coil?

Here is where it gets a bit interesting. Single coils and humbuckers can be combined in more ways than just having a guitar with an HSS pickup configuration.

A split coil is a humbucker that is wired in a way that lets you switch one coil off whenever you want. You do this via a push-pull switch on your volume knob, essentially turning it into a single coil pickup. Having the tonal qualities of both pickup types at your disposal is of course a great advantage, and is appreciated by many guitarists. And how is this accomplished?

Two-conductor vs. Four-conductor Humbucking wiring

Coil splitting is possible through something called four-conductor wiring. This means that instead of only having separate wirings for hot output and ground, as in a two-conductor type setup, you instead get two separate wires for each of the pickup’s coils. This opens up for a whole new world of possibilities for output circuit configurations, and coil splitting is just one of them.

Pickup wiring can be a bit complex for some of us, and we wanted this guide to be a comprehensive one. But if you want to check out a more detailed guide about wiring for guitar pickups, this one is quite good.

Active vs Passive

So far we’ve only categorized pickups into humbuckers and single coils, but there are more distinctions to get into. Passive and Active pickups!

Passive pickups are the most common ones, and they are what most people refer to when they talk about pickups. Yes, the category already covered above. Active pickups on the other hand is a different beast altogether.

They hit the market in the early 80’s, and were built by EMG. They were designed to maximize output, completely reduce noise, and also compensate for long cables that otherwise would weaken the input signal. They accomplished this by using weaker magnets than for conventional pickups, and using a built-in preamp powered by a nine volt battery to boost the signal.

The result was pretty amazing, and their EMG 81 and EMG 85 pickups became almost legendary overnight, especially in the hard rock and metal genre. The active pickups could generate a massive output without causing any string pull. And of course less string pull meant more sustain.

Active pickups come in both humbucker and single coil versions. They all benefit from great noise reduction, overall high output and a phenomenal consistency in clarity and note-to note definition. Many other brands, such as DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan also have their own lines of active pickups.

However, in spite of all the sonic benefits you get with an active pickup, a majority of guitarists prefer passive pickups. There is no clear cut winner here, and I guess it comes down to tonal preferences. I hear many guitarists say that active pickups are sometimes a bit too clear, and have a sterile edginess to them. Many also say they prefer the more “natural sound” of a passive pickup. 

Output

Even though passive pickups are not as “hot” as active pickups, you can still increase output by adding more winds of copper wire around the magnets. At least up to point. Too much wire and the sound will be very dull and flat. Also, the stronger the magnet, the higher the output.

This type of “output manipulation” gives us three sub categories: High output pickups, moderate output pickups and vintage-style pickups, which have the lowest output of them all. The simplest distinction between them is this:

Higher outputs are great for distortion but gives you less dynamic range.

Lower outputs are great for a clean sound, with a more dynamic range, but not great for distortion.

There are of course limits on how much you can increase output in a passive pickup. With too strong magnets the magnetic field around them can actually suppress string vibration quite a lot. This can cause undesirable external noise and a loss of sustain. This effect on the strings is called string pull.

Types of magnets

Whether you get a single coil or humbucker, magnets are important determinants of sound. It doesn’t matter if you go for passive or active, or whether you consider the various output options that have to do with how thick the layer of wire is. You still need to consider the type of magnets. Now, there are a few magnets that are typically used in guitar pickups, and it doesn’t hurt to know a little bit more about them.

Alnico III

This is the weakest of the bunch, and it generates a fairly soft tone. It has a very low string pull, which means the strings are less influenced by the magnetic pull from the pickup. Many guitar players like Alnico III magnets in their neck pickups.

Alnico II

Used in a great number of pickups today, these are slightly stronger, but still with a relatively soft and sweet tone. Alnico II magnets in a bridge pickup, and Alnico III magnets in the neck pickup is a quite common configuration.

Alnico V

These magnets have an even higher output, and are used for pickups with a hotter and more edgy sound. Very nice to use for more bold and aggressive tones. Slightly stronger magnet pull of course.

Alnico VIII

These magnets are a lot less common than the others, but seem to be rising in popularity. They pretty much give you the power of a ceramic magnet, but maintain the warmth of the Alnico V. They also have the strongest magnetic pull.

Ceramic

Well, the only magnet hotter than Alnico VIII is the ceramic magnet, and use primarily for hard rock and metal.

EQ

This is quite a helpful spec to consider when hunting for new pickups. Even taking into consideration various tone woods, scale lengths or other details on your guitar that may affect tone, it’s safe to say that manufacturers EQ descriptions for pickups are accurate. So, if you’re in the pursuit of a warmer sound, you might want to consider a pickup that focuses on mids and bass. On the other hand, if it’s clarity and presence you’re after, then a pickup that emphasizes on the treble frequency is a better choice.

We’re not going to get into winding at all in this article. Partly because most companies won’t reveal any information about how their pickups are wound anyway, but also because there is a lot that goes into it and therefore only of interest if you wish to wind your own pickups.

Potting

As an honorable mention, you might want to check out if a pickup is potted or not, meaning the windings being coated in wax, epoxy or something similar. Why would this be important? Because the wax holds moving parts still and apart and thus prevents them from vibrating when you don’t want them to. In other words, preventing unwanted feedback. Unless you want your guitar to pick up random noises in the air…which CAN be cool if you’re going for a more vintage charm. Most modern day pickups come potted by default. 

Why are some pickups angled?

As you already know, pickup location matters. Strumming your guitar near the bridge or closer to the neck produces different sounds, and so pickup positions matters. The closer the pickup is to the bridge, the brighter the sound, and of course the closer to the neck , the warmer the sound. You also have shorter sustain closer to the bridge.

Some pickups sit at an angle (think Stratocaster) for that exact reason. As you move your pick down the strings, you’ll go from a warmer sound to a more trebly sound on the thinner strings. This  is a cool way to improve note articulation.

With this in mind, experimenting with different pickups and where they are positioned can be both eye opening and fun.

Popular brands

There are of course a lot of good pickups on the market, and we’re certainly not going to promote one brand over the other. What sounds good is a very individual experience, and so there is no right or wrong here. But, there are some brands that have a little more recognition than others, and for good reasons. So let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular ones.

Seymour Duncan

No surprise to find these guys on the list. This famous California-based manufacturer is an absolute beast, and is revered by many as the world leader. Their almost ridiculously wide range of pickups makes it almost impossible to not find anything that suits your needs.

Bare Knuckle

This interesting British brand seems to increase in popularity by the minute.  They make a range of single coils, humbuckers and P90’s with an emphasis on raw edge and high output. As perhaps their name implies, these pickups are favored by a lot of rock and metal players.

DiMarzio

This New York company has made quite a name for themselves throughout the years. Especially with their Super Distortion pickup. They are known for having a range of pickups with high output, amazing sustain and very versatile applications. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have players like Steve Vai have their own signature model.

EMG

We’ve already mentioned EMG, and they definitely deserve to be on this list. After all, they paved the way for active pickups, and in doing so opened up an entire avenue of sonic possibilities. Especially for metal guitarists. Zakk Wylde is an avid user of EMG pickups.

Fender

This company has been producing pickups since forever it seems, and is probably the biggest seller of guitar pickups of all time. We can argue tonal qualities all day, but the quality I hope we can all agree on. These guys know what they’re doing.

Gibson

Surely you didn’t think we’d exclude the inventor of the humbucker from this list? Gibson’s PAF’s have served as an inspiration for pretty much all humbuckers out there today. They have never stopped improving and innovating their various pickup models, and never ceased to come out with new ones.

Changing your pickups

Many of us don’t like to mess too much with our guitars in the beginning, and even seasoned guitarists sometimes see changing pickups as a bit daunting. I’m no exception I must admit, as I prefer to get some help from a bass player I know. He is more of a handyman, and loves modifying his instruments.

If you’re like me, there is definitely no shame in letting a guitar tech do this for you. The main thing I want you to think about is that changing pickups on your guitar can work wonders. Rather than buying a new guitar, simply changing the pickups can make all the difference in the world.

However, if these kinds of tasks don’t scare you and you’d love to learn more about how to do it, please check this video out.

In closing

By now we hope you have gained a better understanding of guitar pickups. How they work, what the differences are and the huge role they play in the way your guitar sounds. Getting the right pickups for your guitar can make all the difference in the world. And knowing a bit more about them will only add to the growth for you as a player. And if pickups are the soul of an electric guitar, so is tonewood for your acoustic. So head over to our guide on tonewood if you want to know more.

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